Cubs looking at locking up Samardzija as part of their core

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Cubs looking at locking up Samardzija as part of their core

INDIAN WELLS, Calif. The marketing department should put Jeff Samardzija front and center again. Hes got the long hair, tattoos, Notre Dame connection and blue-collar attitude.

Samardzijas a Chicago guy. In a clubhouse full of players still trying to find their identities and make sure they say the right things to the media, who else could do an impression of Hawk Harrelson?

And then deliver the zinger: You could always get a good nap in during the Sox game.

The Cubs are still shopping for two legitimate starting pitchers during the general manager meetings at the Hyatt Regency outside Palm Springs, Calif. Theyve reportedly submitted a bid for the right to negotiate with Korean left-hander Hyun-jin Ryu, and are pushing to re-sign reliever Shawn Camp, their only free agent.

But in the back of their mind, the Cubs are also thinking about a contract extension for Samardzija. Industry sources confirmed on Thursday that the Cubs have discussed the possibility internally and reached out to Samardzijas camp. Even if its only preliminary and far from a slam dunk it shows that hes become a core player.

The Cubs dont have to hype Samardzija anymore or explain why they made a 10 million investment in an All-American wide receiver. A classic Jim Hendry signing has become a key piece for the Theo Epstein administration, perhaps the next in line for a new deal after the commitment to Starlin Castro last summer.

Im not going to comment on it, general manager Jed Hoyer said. But he had a great year and certainly is a guy we hope to have in a Cubs uniform for a long time. Hes a great competitor. I think hes the kind of guy that teammates really look up to. He has the potential down the road to be a really good leader.

So far, hes had to worry about himself as hes matured in the game. Its hard to be a leader when youre also trying to establish a career. But I think now that hes had a really great season, he can probably be that guy. I got nothing but positive things to say about the year he had. Getting to know him, hes really impressive.

At this time last year, Samardzija might have had two good half-seasons in the big leagues during an up-and-down career as a reliever. He lobbied Epstein for a shot in the rotation and responded by going 9-13 with a 3.81 ERA and getting stronger later in the season.

Samardzija posted a 2.58 ERA in 11 starts after the All-Star break. He notched 180 strikeouts in 174.2 innings before a precautionary September shutdown. He expects to be unleashed next season for 200 innings and assume some of the leadership responsibilities once held by Ryan Dempster.

Only Tampa Bay Rays ace David Price fired a fastball with a higher average velocity (95.5 mph) than Samardzija (95.1 mph), according to the online database at FanGraphs.

With that type of ceiling, Samardzija might not be in a hurry to sign over his three arbitration-eligible seasons. He will turn 28 next year and remains under club control through 2015. Hes insisted that he feels even younger than that because theres not as much wear and tear on his right arm after focusing on football for so long.

When asked back in August, Samardzija played it cool while the visiting clubhouse was buzzing with reports about Castros potential 76 million extension in between games of a doubleheader against the Cincinnati Reds.

Arbitration is a good scenario for a player, Samardzija said that afternoon. It was put there by the players (union) and its a fair situation. Like Ive said all along, I signed a nice contract coming out of college and I dont have many expenses. I dont have that many bills to pay. So I dont really need any money to tell you the truth.

Im not asking for anything. Im asking to pitchIm here to work. Im not here to get paid. Im here to prove that I can play this game every fifth day and be a guy (who can) help take this team where we want to go.

Samardzija brings swagger and confidence to the clubhouse, and that could color any negotiation. During the final week of the season, he indicated that hed be willing to listen.

Obviously, Id like to hear what they have to say simply because this is where I want to be, Samardzija said. But then again, that also might mean theres really no rush to do anything. They have my rights for three more years and Ive openly stated a lot of times that this is where I want to be.

I wanted to be here when it wasnt going good and I still want to be here when (it gets) good. That hasnt changed. Obviously, Im excited to see the kind of pieces were going to add and the direction were going to go, because I want to be a big part of this solution in the future.

The Cubs still need a third baseman, an outfielder and some bullpen help, but they may have already found a No. 1 starter. Who knows what that might cost on the open market in 2016 and beyond?

But until then, the Cubs should be selling Samardzija jerseys alongside those of Castro and Anthony Rizzo, because a player once almost written off as a total bust is now part of Epsteins core.

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Why Cubs are excited for pitching prospect Dylan Cease: He's 'throwing lightning bolts'

Theo Epstein's front office is heading into Year 6 with the Cubs and they're finally talking about a pitcher as one of the organization's most exciting prospects.

That's how senior vice president of scouting and player development Jason McLeod framed his Dylan Cease report to fans at the Cubs Convention at the Sheraton Grand Chicago last weekend.

It was a tongue-in-cheek summation from McLeod after he spent the previous few minutes fawning over Cease, the Cubs' sixth round pick in 2014.

Of course, McLeod and the Cubs can poke fun at the lack of impact pitching the farm system has developed when the homegrown position players like Kris Bryant and Kyle Schwarber just helped lead the franchise to its first World Series championship in over a century.

Cease, however, has been one of the more intriguing Cubs prospects for years — a right-handed pitcher capable of touching 101 mph on the radar gun.

"This guy is throwing lightning bolts out of his arm," McLeod said. "It's really exciting. But we also understaned he's only in Low-A this year, so he's far away."

The Cubs expect Cease to pitch for Class-A South Bend in 2017 after spending last season pitching for short-season Eugene and the 2015 campaign working in the rookie league in Arizona.

Cease — who just turned 21 in late December — put up some impressive numbers at both stops in the Cubs system, posting a 2.36 ERA and 1.165 WHIP to go along with a whopping 91 strikeouts in 68.2 innings. He also only surrendered one homer and walked more batters (41) than reached via a basehit (39).

Control is obviously an issue for Cease, but the upside is evident.

"He's so far away," McLeod said. "He's gonna go into 2017 as a starter. As with a lot of young guys, it's gonna come down to command and depend on that third pitch and the ability to land them for strikes.

"It's a special arm. He can pitch 95-100 mph with a big power curveball. He's unlike anyone else we have in our system since we've been here in terms of pure stuff."

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One fan compared Cease to Carl Edwards Jr. in terms of their lanky build and high velocity, setting McLeod up for a layup joke.

"Well, Dylan is much stronger physically than CJ is...as is everybody in this room," McLeod said as the ballroom filled with laugher. "Don't tell [CJ] I said that. 

"They have different body types, obviously. Carl is long and lanky and Dylan has probably put on 20 pounds since we drafted him, so he's more like 6-foot-2, 190."

By comparison, Edwards — who goes by "The String Bean Slinger" for his slight build — is listed at 6-foot-3, 170 pounds.

Edwards was drafted in the 48th round in 2011 and spent his whole minor-league career as a starting pitcher until the Cubs converted him to a reliever in 2015.

Cease may eventually go down the same path, but the Cubs are going to give him every opportunity to make it as a starter first.

Cease was one of the top pitchers available in the 2014 draft, but his stock took a hit when he was forced to undergo Tommy John surgery on his pitching elbow while at Milton High School in Georgia.

That scared off a lot of teams — as did the potential signability issues with college offers looming — but the Cubs took a chance and have now watched Cease soar to a top prospect in the system (No. 4 by Baseball America; No. 7 by FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus) despite the cautious approach and lack of innings in professional ball.

"We have to thank Kyle Schwarber, actually, as one of the main reasons we got to sign Dylan Cease," McLeod said. "Because we took Kyle fourth overall, we were able to save money on the selection with him, which gave us the resources to go get Dylan Cease.

"He was a Top 10 pick in the draft — a high school arm that got hurt, fell down to the fifth round and he had a commitment to Vanderbilt, I think it was, and we were able to use the money we saved from Kyle.

"Just another reason to love Kyle Schwarber."

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon’s messaging to Cubs before the 2017 campaign

Joe Maddon's Washington itinerary didn't include an hour-long sit-down with Chuck Todd for NBC's "Meet the Press." There would be no rehashing the manager's Game 7 decisions as he stood outside the West Wing, though the second question during the media stakeout involved "last year's team" and how the 2017 Cubs are prepared to defend a World Series title.

"You're already there, huh?" Maddon said to a CNN reporter, minutes after President Barack Obama's final official White House event ended on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. 

But last year's team is gone — preserved now in highlight films and the hearts and minds of generations of Cub fans — even if so many familiar faces will be in Mesa when pitchers and catchers officially report to Arizona on Valentine's Day.

It would be impossible to replicate everything that made the 2016 Cubs so special. Baseball has its own relentless pace and the dynamics are constantly shifting. (Remember when players were passive-aggressively complaining about Maddon's spring-training approach during the final week of a 103-win regular season?) The clubhouse chemistry will inevitably feel different after climbing a Mount Everest of professional sports.

"A mind once stretched has a very difficult time going back to its original form," Maddon said. "We're motivated by it. We want to do it again, of course. There's no question we're trying to do that.

"I'm really leaning on the phrase or the thought of being uncomfortable. I want us to be uncomfortable. I think the moment you get into your comfort zone after having such a significant moment in your life like that, the threat is that you're going to stop growing.

"So I really want us to be uncomfortable. I really want to continue (to see) a pattern of growth and really try to get at them very quickly again."

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Can Jason Heyward recover from one of the worst offensive seasons in the majors last year? Is Willson Contreras ready to be a frontline catcher? Will Javier Baez have to adjust back to being a role player after becoming a playoff superstar? Does Kyle Schwarber in the leadoff spot and Albert Almora Jr. and Jon Jay in a center-field timeshare represent an upgrade over Dexter Fowler?

If healthy, Wade Davis should be a trusted, lower-maintenance closer than Aroldis Chapman, with an advanced approach to pitching and more clubhouse presence. As a staff, the Cubs will have to bounce back from pitching into early November (or not, in the case of the relievers Maddon didn't trust during the playoffs).

As it stands, Jon Lester (33) and John Lackey (38) have already combined to throw almost 5,000 innings in The Show (including the postseason). Jake Arrieta will have to deal with the pressure of playing for his megadeal in his final season before becoming a free agent.

The drop-off after Mike Montgomery — and it's still mostly projected potential with the No. 5 starter — appears to be very steep in an organization that doesn't have any high-end pitching prospects in the upper levels of the farm system.

After painting the bull's-eye on the chest and turning "Embrace The Target" and "Try Not To Suck" into viral T-shirts, a guy who hates meetings is still working on his themes for this campaign.

"I'm really rotating around the thought of authenticity," Maddon said. "I talked about it a lot last year, the fact that I think authenticity has a chance to repeat itself without even trying. It's part of who you are. It's not fabricated. It's real.

"I've talked about our guys a lot the last couple years. I think one of our strongest qualities is the authentic component of our players. So I'm really focusing on that word right now. Again, that's a great word to bring an entire message from (when) you get in front of the group that first day in spring training.

"I kind of just think like authenticity happens. And let's work it from there."

The costumes should be in midseason form with Maddon planning a house party around Tampa's Gasparilla Pirate Festival before driving his RV from Florida to Arizona.

Maddon will turn 63 on Feb. 8 and have to keep evolving, just like his players, who might outgrow some of those gimmicks. But the Cubs are still a reflection of their future Hall of Fame manager.

Amid all the uncertainty in Washington, Maddon wouldn't touch a question about what advice he would give Donald Trump before Friday's inauguration.

"I'm not even going to go anywhere close to that," Maddon said. "I will say this: I have a lot of respect of the office.

"At the end of the day, just have a lot of respect for the office, regardless of your political persuasion. My point would be to encourage people to really respect the office and let's see what we get done here over the next four years."